Margot Fonteyn: A Life Paperback – Oct 4 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
Margot Fonteyn (1919–1991) earned her title of prima ballerina assoluta with her elegant presence, exquisite musicality and eloquent line. She was Frederick Ashton's muse, Rudolf Nureyev's partner and, for more than 40 years, the ideal of the English ballet style. As Daneman relates in this admiring and compulsively readable biography, well before forging her partnership with Nureyev, Fonteyn was a star, Britain's "Queen of Ballet." She was already in her early 40s when Nureyev defected in 1961 and she danced Giselle with him; despite the 20-year age gap, the unlikely pair generated magic on stage. Fonteyn was rejuvenated as a dancer: her career lasted an additional 15 years. But in Daneman's astute telling, Fonteyn's personal life proves more fascinating than her dance legend. She performed in London during the blitz, becoming "a national mascot," and was discovered in her hotel bed with a lover the night German troops entered the Hague. She had many lovers (Nureyev perhaps among them) before marrying Roberto Arias in 1955; Arias was a former Panamanian ambassador suspected of planning a coup against the government of President Ernesto de la Guarda. Fonteyn gave her final performance in the early 1970s and then retired to Panama to live with Arias, who had been paralyzed in an assassination attempt. Daneman has impeccable credentials: a graduate of London's Royal Ballet School and a former member of the Australian Ballet company, she's written four novels. Both critically sophisticated and dramatically compelling, this is a must-read for balletomanes as well as biography aficionados. Illus. not seen by PW.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
*Starred Review* Adored British prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn lived a life as fantastic as the fairy-tale plots of the ballets she made her own. The full story of her exceptional life and complex temperament has never before been told, and Daneman, a dancer and a novelist, seems to have been born to write this capacious and compulsively readable biography. With its lush detail and probing analysis, her many-faceted portrait of Fonteyn embodies the dancer's dramatic energy and mesmerizing allure. Born Peggy Hookham in 1919, she had the crucial support of her tirelessly ambitious mother; Ninette de Valois, director of the Royal Ballet; and choreographer Frederick Ashton. Daneman vividly re-creates each of Fonteyn's demanding roles and empathically chronicles her artistry, "legendary stamina," pragmatism, sense of style, aplomb, and unique appeal, not to mention her love affairs, rivalries, and wretched marriage to the philandering Panamanian fixer and politician Roberto Arias. In spite of numerous obstacles, Fonteyn attained new heights of accomplishment and fame in her midforties when she began dancing with a flamboyant partner half her age, Rudolph Nureyev. Enrapturing into her sixties, Dame Fonteyn lived life with grace and fortitude on her own demanding terms. (For more portraits of extraordinary dancers, see the adjacent Read-alikes column.) Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Born Peggy Hookham in northern England, Fonteyn was fortunate to have fine teachers from the start. When her father's business took the family to Shanghai in the late 1920's, Her astute mother found exiled Russian ballerinas to pass their training on to her. They returned to England in the mid-30's and Peggy auditioned for Ninette de Valois' Sadlers Wells ballet company. She was accepted, re-baptized Margot Fonteyn, and danced for Sadlers Wells (later the Royal Ballet) for most of a career that lasted until she was nearly 60 years old.
Forget about anorexia, drug problems, temper tantrums, and injuries. "Simple", and "pure" are two words used to describe her art, and that simplicity carried over into her life. If she had never rocketed to international fame following the company's first New York visit following WWII, it would have been fine with her. She learned and grew from every change she faced-never more obvious than her ability to reach a new level of greatness during her partnership with Rudolf Nureyev. That partnership began when she was on the verge of retirement and extended her career for nearly two decades.
If there is any fault with Daneman's biography, it is that it is a little too adoring. Daneman does not skip over Fonteyn's attraction to unworthy men, notably alky composer Constant Lambert and creepy Panamanian philanderer/thug/husband Tito Arias, but somehow it doesn't show it to detract from her as a person. The photos selected for the book are also a little disappointing. Nonetheless this beautifully written, entrancing biography of genius is a wonderful read and makes you want to see films, video, anything that lets you again experience the joy of Margot dancing.
Throughout the many years of her long dominance, Fonteyn is totally fascinating, although she nearly seems at times a passive player in the events surrounding her. Some have complained here that the book is too long, or that Daneman resorts to gossip in trying to find out if Fonteyn and Nuryev were ever lovers. Nonsense, we all want to know and Daneman knows we want to know. Nureyev was a sacred monster, a genius and a wild man of discipline, enourmous sexual appetites, self-indugent and often thoroghly dislikable. Danenman captures the complexity of the relationship between Fonteyn and Nureyev. Each brought to the other a special quality that enhanced their partnership and enduring affection. Nureyev could be cruel, hurling verbal abuse and acting insufferably childish towards her, but Fonteyn's dancing in her early 40s was a revelation to critics, audiences, and herself--she actually managed for a few more years to top herself in her prime. De Valois actually thought this partnership could give Margot five more years of a career. Their partnership would extend to 17 years.
Daneman's effort is hardly hagiographic. Fonteyn, who was often admired for her diligence, hard work, and ability to be an inspiring team leader, was also capable of being competitive, politically naive (her questionable friendships with Imelda Marcos, General Noriega, and Chile's Pinnochet are not glossed over), and far wilder than her lady-like exterior would have us believe. She had lousy taste in men and Daneman, without resorting to too much psychologising, makes us understand her attraction to the lousy men in her life. Constant Lambert was a talented musician who cultivated Fonteyn's life-long love of books (she was poorly educated), but he was also a hopeless drunk, fat and unkempt, who ultimately abandoned Fonteyn. Even worse is her long relationship with Roberto Arias, the spoiled and pampered Panamanian who became Fonteyn's only husband. A politician, serial adulterer, Arias was shot by a political ally, rendering him a paraplegic for the rest of his life. At the time of the shooting, Fonteyn was seriously considering a divorce from a husband who was rarely around and flagrantly conducted his affairs right under his wife's nose. Yet when Arias was shot, Fonteyn more than proved her loyalty. The huge medical costs over the ensuing twenty five years of his life would bankrupt Fonteyn, forcing her to dance, her technique sagging visibly, until she was nearly 60. She endured with most of her dignity in tact--and the bum she called her husband didn't deserve her loyalty.
Some very starry dancers from Pavlova to Sibley, Ulanova, Baryshnikov, Norah Kaye, Eric Bruhn, and others all add to Daneman's disctinctive narrative. Daneman's novelistic eye constantly offers the telling detail. Her writing often soars off the page. I felt I was witnessing the aura of magic that Fonteyn radiated from the stage. Even the oft-told tale of her complete triumph as Aurora during that historic first visit to the U.S. in 1949, seems newly minted here. This is what a great biography should be, and with Fonteyn at its dazzling center, here are hours of thrilling history, behind-the-scenes drama, and all the color anyone could expect from a fabulous life brilliantly told.
I was startled to find out number one, how poor she was most of her life, and how she had no pension, no savings, nothing! It was just tragic, and if you ask me, marriage to Tito Arias was a huge mistake. Loving him, or finding him lovable, was Fonteyn's tragic flaw, and I still can't figure it out (why she did it). here Daneman isn't much help because underneath a posture of "no comment," and the biographer's need to find something redeeming in all of her characters, you can tell she doesn't care for him any more than I do.
Perhaps Fonteyn was drawn by his foreignness, but she must have met thousands and thousands of more attractive foreign people.
Daneman also makes you think that Nureyev was a great dancer--only for about ten months, and then he turned into a parody of himself. I don't think that's entirely true, but after going through "Rudimania" in the pages of the book, I did begin to question whether he ever had an unselfish thought in his entire life. Margot makes one bad decision after another in this book and, otherwise an admirable character in so many ways, she does not seem to have ever felt regret. Daneman seems to think that she might well have retired after the success of Ashton's Ondine, and left the field to Lynn Seymour, Antoinette Sibley, and the American ballerinas. This is a trikcky proposition, but at any rate the remainser of Fonteyn's career shows her working pretty much out of the old-fashioned ballet theater conventions she had for so long been used to, and we see the fragmentation of Ninette de Valois' Sadler Wells/Royal Ballet in terms that feel very real to us, painful. The whole business was predicated on having "stars," just as in Hollywood, and yet when the stars got too powerful, and diva-esque, something of the "company" feeling went by the wayside.
Daneman brings us as close as is humanly possible to being inside Margot Fonteyn's skin, both as a woman and as an artist. Her decsriptions of dancing are impeccable, vivid. She makes me feel I was there for the premiere of Ashton's WISE VIRGINS or LES SIRENES or the bizarre LUCIFER that Martha Graham concocted for Fonteyn and Nureyev. How she does this is a mystery, but it involves large helpings of meticulous and cleverly edited interviews; a sense of drama and the ridiculous; an unabashed curiosity about sex and matters of the body (illness included) and most of all, she knows what she's talking about from a practical and musical perspective.
This book has something I've never seen, and I'm not sure how I feel about it. One passage had a footnote that I wanted to read, a passage purporting to give Ashton's account of Margot's sexual prowess in shockingly gynecological terms. "My goodness, who told the author that?" I wondered. Following the footnote, i read, to my surprise, "Frederick Ashton, source withheld."
Source withheld? That's a new one to me! is this common now in biography, to drop these bombshells and let everyone off the hook?
Despite my qualms regarding this newstyle footnoting practice, this was the biography of the year. I don't expect another book to touch it for a good long time.
Oh god, do we really need all this sleazy speculation? Most of the book is devoted to who did with who and how. According to the author, everyone did everything with everybody. This based on the slightest whiff of a rumour from any source. Instead of real descriptions about the Fonteyn/Nureyev partnership, she goes on and on and on (pages and pages, seriously) about every form of physical contact that may have occurred between them and agonizes about whether actual "penetration" (that's really a quote) occurred. According to her it's a tragedy that we will never know because they both took the secret to their graves. Actually they both categorically denied it all their lives.
Fonteyn also gets a blast because when she wrote some filler in a book about Pavlova, acting as a presenter of Pavlova's own notes (NOT a biographer) she didn't tell everyone the rumour that Pavlova was (gasp) possibly illegitemite and (gasp gasp) possibly half Jewish. All Pavlova said was that her father had died when she was two and according to this author, Margot ought to have jumped right in there with the rumours and was negligent not doing so. This is a person I would never care to meet and spending 580 pages with her seriously detracts from the pleasure of spending 580 pages with Margot. Especially since, like most people who write books this long, she excelled in Creative Writing 101 and seriously needs an editor for her flowery passages.
So -5 for her and + 5 for Margot equals +4, Margot being worth a lot more.
Yes, lots of men fell in love with her, but she like so many women had a hard time choosing the right man, and many of those she chose used her only for her beautiful flesh. Eventually, she found one whom she thought she loved, devoted her remaining life to, and even he was not worthy of her. His name was Tito Arias, a Panamanian, lawyer, politician, ambassador, divorcee, husband, revolutionary, gun runner, traitor (some would say), philanderer, and God knows what else. He even got Margot involved, arrested (and deported from Panama) in some of his schemes. Yet she loved him with all of her being, but she wouldn't give up her love for the ballet even for him. It's a good thing for him that she did not give up the ballet, because it was her money that supported him after he became a paraplegic in an assassination attempt.
Things were brought out in this biography that Margot would not have wanted known. Things of a personal nature about her intimacies with men who could not keep them private. Some are pure conjecture and some may be true, but Margot did not mention any such happenings in her own autobiography, so it is too bad they had to be brought out after she died. Yes, too bad.
She was not the oldest ballerina to ever dance on stage, but because of her indomitable will, reinvigerated by Rudolph Nureyev, she was able dance far longer than most ballerinas. Life returned her to the ages when she was 72, taken away by cancer, respector of no human being. Read this book about the remarkable, muse of the Royal Ballet.......Richard.